mid autumn festival - Hoi An lantern

Each year, mid-Autumn Festival (or Moon Festival) lights up Vietnam as one of the most colorful and culturally significant festivals in the country. This year, taking place on September 9th countrywide, get a glimpse into the history and traditions of this beautiful festival, and where to go to experience it.


Vietnam loves its festivals. Dictated by an ancient lunar calendar and shifts in the cosmos, Vietnam is home to dozens of festivals yearly, with celebrations spilling out from family homes and onto the streets in colorful displays of culture and tradition. Some festivals celebrate Buddhist events, remember historical figures or pay homage to ancestors – but far more are rooted in Vietnam’s close connection with allegory, folklore and storytelling, and tell the tales of ancient Vietnamese legends with rituals passed down through generations. Perhaps the most colorful and lively of these festivals is Vietnam’s Mid-Autumn Festival, falling on the 8th full moon of the year in a country-wide showcase of color and heritage. In 2015, Mid-Autumn Festival took place on September 27th.

The Legend of Moon Festival

Mid-Autumn festival is celebrated not only in Vietnam, but also in neighboring China. The legends behind each celebration, though, are almost entirely distinct, with only a few interwoven legends that have guided the modern Vietnamese celebration to take on rituals linked to its Chinese history.

In Vietnam, however, the legend of mid-Autumn festival is steeped in magic and whimsy just like its Chinese counterpart, and has evolved over centuries in its practice and retelling to become a distinctly Vietnamese cultural icon. Unlike the Chinese story that follows an Emperor’s journey to the moon, the Vietnamese legend is instead a charming re-imagining of Jack and the Beanstalk.

The Vietnamese legend begins with a man name Cuoi, a Banyan tree and a jealous wife, whose jealousy was not directed at a person, so much as a tree.  Angry that her husband loved his Banyan tree more than he loved her, upon finding the tree un-watched by Cuoi, she poured dirty water on its roots in the hopes that it would mean the tree’s demise. But soon after she did — and just as Cuoi returned — the tree didn’t wilt, but instead grew. Seeing what was happening, Cuoi grabbed onto the tree, and as its trunk shot up into the sky and towards the moon, it took him with it. To this day, it’s believed that the man and his Banyan tree still live in harmony on the moon, as Vietnam’s own “man in the moon” legend.

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Modern Mid-Autumn Festival

Over centuries, the festival has gone from an agricultural ritual asking for plentiful crops, then to a celebration of matchmaking and family, and finally to the celebration of children. Modern mid-Autumn in Vietnam is centered upon kids, education and culture, and is a favorite for families to teach children traditional songs, dance and games. Its childlike whimsy is what makes mid-Autumn such a colorful extravaganza of traditional Vietnamese culture, and visitors to the country during the 8th full moon promises a dizzying and elaborate display of lion dancing parades – led by gleeful children along the streets in search of candy – and traditional music on city streets. But most famous during mid-Autumn is the incredible display of lanterns, which are perhaps the most iconic remnant of the festival’s folklore roots.

According to the legend, Cuoi remains lost in the heavens alongside his Banyan tree, which gave rise to the use of lanterns and lights during mid-Autumn Festival. The bright lights of lanterns hung from tall buildings, houses and carried by children are meant to serve as a beacon to guide Cuoi back to earth. While traditional mid-Autumn lanterns are the shape of a five-pointed star, creative takes on designs range anywhere from glowing fish to the lit faces of dragons, and children are encouraged to make their own lanterns to carry with them. But beyond just craft-making and music, mid-Autumn also places a focus on a favorite aspect of Vietnamese culture – food!

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Moon Festival Eats

Made of a concoction including sticky rice and in an array of flavors, mooncakes are one of the most iconic – and delicious – elements of mid-Autumn Festival. These heavy cakes are both a mid-Autumn delicacy and a popular gift during the season, and hotels and restaurants alike will often create menus with dozens of mooncake flavors for months on either side of the festival. Some mooncakes even have accompanying boxes that are ornately decorated and sometimes even plated in gold. Pop-up mooncake shops on the road are common near mid-Autumn, and when it comes to souvenirs and gifts for family, they make for an especially unique option.

Where to Celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival

Given mid-Autumn’s focus on children and family, festivities are usually held in residential areas, but they often spill out into more public arenas in the cities as well. Specialty mooncakes are popular at nearly every major hotel – Sofitel and Inter-Continental create elaborate mooncake menus for each new year – and lion dance parades will often run through busier streets in downtown areas.

This year, mid-Autumn Festival takes place officially on September 8th, but festivities usually take place for a week leading up to the full moon. When visiting Vietnam during mid-Autumn season, these are the best places to experience the festivities:

Hanoi

The capital city comes to life during mid-Autumn Festival, with the city’s families taking to the streets for days leading up to the event itself. Since mid-Autumn is heavily focused on children, Hang Ma Street in the Old Quarter, famous for selling children’s toys and gifts, is especially bustling during mid-Autumn. Within walking distance is Hoan Kiem Lake, where even more lantern festivities are popular in the day before the full moon, too. A roam through the Old Quarter’s many streets is also a perfect opportunity to try traditional mooncakes and buy some for family and friends.

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City during Mid-Autumn Festival is glittering to say the least, with many areas in downtown Saigon coming alive with festivities. The downtown ward of Pham Ngu Lao, popular with tourists to the city, is especially popular for lion dances, with a full week of performances from the oldest children for the first day and progressively younger until the full moon.

Hoi An

The ancient town of Hoi An is famous for its lanterns, and holds a monthly lantern festival for each new full moon. Consequently, Hoi An’s mid-Autumn celebrations certainly put other destinations to shame, with some of the largest parades in the country. Here you’ll see lanterns hanging from houses, buildings and restaurants not just in mid-Autumn, but old town is especially bright and colorful during mid-Autumn. If you’re visiting Hoi An with children during mid-Autumn, it’s easy to get in on the festive fun with lantern-making workshops in town. Hoi An is a perfect spot to enjoy quality family fun and travel, especially during mid-Autumn.

Phan Thiet

Widely recognized by locals as one of the best places in the country for the yearly festival, Phan Thiet is home not only to a beautiful coastline and white sand beaches, but also beautiful parades of lights and lanterns during mid-Autumn. With a yearly parade that stretches endlessly down the city’s usually quiet streets, mid-Autumn is one of the most lively events in Phan Thiet, and is a perfect cultural experience between relaxing on the city’s beaches during year-round warm weather.

Want to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam? We offer customisable tours through Vietnam with your needs in mind. Make lanterns, eat mooncakes and sit back and watch the joyous occasion while exploring Vietnam with us!

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Karen is a content guru at Buffalo Tours - which is fitting, since she's a travel addict herself. Although she hails from Arizona, she loves discovering hidden cafes, historic buildings and friendly locals in her chosen home of Hanoi, Vietnam – some of which she loves to share on Buffalo Tours’ travel blog!

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